Two junior cops who stopped for a roadside mid-shift coffee break on a quiet Sunday night would minutes later be the first two people on the scene of Australia’s worst bus crash in decades.
The pair had pulled into a service station at Greta, near Singleton in the NSW Hunter Valley about 11:30pm on the foggy winter night.
As they drove back out onto Wine Country Drive they were confronted with a scene of devastation they had trained for but hoped never to encounter.
A white bus they had seen drive by the petrol station not five minutes earlier was on its side at the edge of a roundabout, the front windscreen smashed out and its headlights piercing through the fog.
Passengers, who had been at a wedding that afternoon, had already managed to crawl out, at least one by smashing a window, and were wandering the edge of the road in a daze.
Two junior highway patrol officers were the first on the scene of the horrific Hunter Valley bus crash
The two patrol officers, neither of whom had attended a ‘major trauma event’ before, sprang into action by shepherding the survivors to safe areas, setting up exclusions zones and assessing and relaying the scene to base, reports The Daily Telegraph.
By 11:40pm two more highway patrol cars were on the scene followed by a general duties car, ambulance officers and an off-duty paramedic who stumbled across the scene.
Six helicopters, 11 ambulances and three ambulance rescue units were dispatched to the scene.
There were soon more than 30 paramedics at the crash site along with fire crews, police, and other medical experts.
Running on adrenaline they assessed each passenger – discovering four had already died from crush wounds – and triaged the survivors.
One man they found was pinned under the bus but was still alive.
NSW Fire and Rescue crews used twin-tonne airbags to raise the wreck before securing it with wooden blocks and pulling the man free.
NSW Ambulance Inspector Joel de’Zuna, a paramedic with 18 years experience, was among the first wave of responders.
On his way to the crash site he was told by the dispatcher: ‘We’ve got multiple passengers, up to 40. There are people trapped under the bus.’
He asked how many triple-zero calls there had been, hoping one might be some kind of mistake or exaggeration.
‘Multiple calls,’ they dispatcher told him.
Once at the scene he helped direct the ambulance response, setting up safe areas were paramedics could stop and treat patients and constantly radioed in the situation.
By midnight he had declared a ‘major incident’.
Within an hour of the first emergency calls all the survivors had been freed from the wreck and were receiving treatment
By 12:15am two more patients had been declared dead, the death toll would be 10 by the end of the night.
By 12:20am the helicopters were approaching to land at nearby Green Ridge Estate where specialist doctors would be met by police to race them back to the crash site.
De’Zuna told them a woman, now intubated, with multiple chest injuries would be their first critical patient.
One firefighter recalled holding up drips and carrying patients on stretchers to assist paramedics and doctors as they ‘did their work saving lives’.
He asked not to be named out of respect to ‘ambulance officers, police officers and particularly those first highway patrol guys at the scene who did much more than me’.
Police officers were reportedly racing between hospitals and the crash site to replenish blood stocks in between comforting survivors.
Within an hour after the first emergency crews arrived on scene all the surviving passengers were freed from the wreckage and receiving treatment.
By 2am the last of the patients were transported from the scene.
Acting Superintendent Matt Zimmer, who was in command of the NSW Police response on the night, said support was now being offered not only to the victims and their families but to emergency crews.
‘Our first responders were faced with confronting and challenging scenes,’ Act Supt Zimmer said.
‘A number of them are very young officers and this is the first occasion that they have been exposed to such a traumatic incident.
He said some of the officers have been granted leave and will be welcomed back when they are ready.
‘We have people who are hurting and will continue to support these people who need it most.’
The crash site was awash with flowers this week as a makeshift memorial to the victims who had been at a wedding that afternoon
NSW Ambulance Hunter New England Chief Superintendent Luke Wiseman said for many officers it would be the most confronting scene of their careers.
‘The wedding party has taken all reasonable and responsible steps to ensure their guests are safely transported to and from their most special day. Unfortunately, this has ended in tragedy,’ he said.
‘I have absolute respect for the collaboration that occurred to provide patient care and ensuring the injured involved were taken to receive the most appropriate care.’
He thanked all those involved in the emergency response including NSW Ambulance Control Centres, Aeromedical teams, interagency teams including NSW Police Force, Fire and Rescue NSW, the Rural Fire Service, NSW Health, the Local Health district hospital in particular John Hunter Hospital, Calvary Mater Hospital and The Maitland Hospital.